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Largest media, communications companies display healthiest payout ratios for 2015

had a dividend payout ratio of over 1,000% for 2015, the largest by far amongmedia and communications companies covered by SNL Kagan.

A dividendpayout ratio represents the percentage of net income that is distributed toshareholders in dividend form during a given year. As such, it is also arepresentation of the percentage of the profits that the company retains forfunding operations. In the case of companies thatelect a REIT status, the metric used is funds from operations or FFO.

Ratiosexceeding 100% mean the company is outpacing its income in terms of dividendsper share, and a negative ratio indicates payouts in spite of losses in companyincome. Either can indicate uncertainty as to sustainability.

Fourout of the top 10 media and communications firms with the highest dividendrates analyzed by SNL Kagan had payout ratios that exceeded 100% in 2015,though all of those are expected to have ratios below 100% by 2018, accordingto S&P Capital IQ estimates.

The 10companies with the highest payout ratios in 2015 averaged less than $1.50 inbasic earnings per share after extraordinary items and over 300% in dividendpayout ratios. The list includes four companies that hit or exceeded the 200%mark. Of those four, the most extreme was Cogent Communications, with an annualdividend rate of $1.44 compared to its basic EPS of 11 cents, leading to apayout ratio of 1,309.1%. Cogent'spayout ratio is expected to fall to 326.9% in 2016, 196.0% in 2017 and 98.6% in2018, according to S&P Capital IQ estimates.

"Weare committed to the dividend strategy, [and] particularly encouraged by thetax efficiency of it, with 100% of our 2015 dividend being tax-deferred andbeing treated as a return of capital," said Cogent CEO Dave Schaefferduring a Feb. 25 earnings call.

Onlytwo other companies from among the highest dividend or FFO payout ratio holderslast year are expected to exhibit concerning ratios through 2018: andWindstream Holdings Inc.National CineMedia had a dividend payout ratio of 338.5% last year, and itsprojected payout ratio is 134.7% in 2018; Windstream had a payout ratio of 250%in 2015 and it is projected to have a negative 104.9% payout ratio in 2018,according to S&P Capital IQ estimates.

NationalCineMedia's senior vice president of finance, David Oddo, has said that thecompany's current dividend strategy remains sustainable at least for the nextyear. "Excluding tax reserves and after the payment of the recentlyannounced $0.22 per share dividend to be paid on March 24, 2016, we would beable to pay our current dividend per share for over four additional quarterseven if no cash were distributed up to NCM, Inc. from NCM LLC," he saidduring the company's fourth quarter earningscall on Feb. 25.

Windstream'sdividend payout ratio is negative going forward, indicating continuingdividends despite a lack of profits. WindstreamPresident and CEO Tony Thomas recently called dividend payments "critical"during a March 3 conference.

"Thegood news, when you look at our 2016 guidance, we indicated we're going togenerate over $100 million of excess free cash flow. So, we're in a goodposition to continue to pay our dividend in 2016," he said. "Longer-term,what I am more interested in is the ability to generate enough excess free cashflow to get more confidence to our fixed income investment community. I want tosee us to be able to generate … over $200 million a year in excess free cashflow, so the fixed income investors have the confidence they need to know thatwe're doing our part to not only grow OIBDAR to help leverage from thedenominator perspective, but also we're doing our part to lower the numeratorby reducing the absolute amount of gross debt outstanding."

Meanwhile,the sectors' largest companies are expected to continue to maintain payoutratios below 100% through 2018. None crossed the 100% threshold in 2015, withthe top 10 averaging 45.2% and holding an average annual rate of $1.72.

is the onlycompany on the list of the ten largest by market capitalization to elect a REITstatus. In 2015, its FFO per share was $4.10, a rate that is expected toincrease to $6.22 by 2018 even as the company's payout ratio decreases from49.8% last year to 32.8% in 2018.

"Weexpect to maintain our disciplined capital allocation strategy to drive growthand improve yields across the business in 2016," said American Tower CFOTom Bartlett in a Feb. 26 earningscall. "Our first capital allocation priority continues to beour dividend, which has grown by an average of 26% since our REIT conversionjust five years ago."

Ofthe four companies with the highest dividend rates for 2015 that had over 100%dividend payout ratios, only one is expected to maintain above a 100% payoutratio in the next couple years. SixFlags Entertainment Corp. had a payout ratio of 140.6% in 2015.S&P Capital IQ estimates indicate it will have a dividend payout ratio of136.6% this year, followed by 129.4% in 2017 and 96.8% in 2018.

Thehighest annual dividend rate for 2015 was the $7.00 paid out by , a company thatrecently changed its status to that of a REIT. The company had an FFO per shareof $10.63 in 2015 with a payout ratio of 65.9%, which is expected to fall to40.5% by 2018 per S&P Capital IQ estimates.

Speakingin a Feb. 18 earnings call,company executives said the company had returned $394 million to itsshareholders in its first year as a REIT and it expected cash dividends tototal about $500 million in 2016.

"Wecontinue to believe that both organic and inorganic growth will be the primaryingredient for our steadily growing cash dividend," CFO Keith Taylor said.

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SNL Kagan has various tools to help assess movement in the media & communications industry.

Click here to download a template with a financial snapshot of such companies, here to download a template with consensus estimates and here to use a template with early entry financials for selected fields within an hour of company reports.